Yola talks empowerment and pouring her experiences into her music

Yola talks empowerment and pouring her experiences into her music

Words by Anna Rose

Most of us can only dream of living a life so carefree that we can be nomads, much like Yola. “I was looking at my diary and it dawned on me – I’ve got nowhere to be,” she says.

The British singer-songwriter could have been in Nashville, she could have been in Bristol, but she realised that right now, she lives nowhere. Eventually, however, she’ll make tracks to Australia for Bluesfest.

It’s pretty cool that the gypsy lifestyle is thrilling for Yola right now, especially when you compare it to the tumultuous nature of her upbringing and young adulthood, much of which was spent in limbo and living in poverty.

“You need to feel afraid to do that,” she says of her wandering ways. “If you can imagine like, when you’re going travelling for the first time in your young adulthood, the thing that allows you to feel safe to go far abroad is that you can come home, somewhere that’s a base for you. Or a strong network of friends and family. To live in a bedroom that hasn’t been turned into an office – that sense doesn’t really leave you.

“You still need to feel you have a base of some kind, be it geographically or emotionally, you need a support network. Humans need friends, family – some form, regardless of what form it comes in, of care and love.

“Having all of that in my life made me feel comfortable to say, ‘I don’t need my apartment’.”

The confidence with which Yola speaks is refreshing, though by her own admission, is late to arrive. The trials and tribulations the 36-year-old has experienced in her life, the stories she gathers from her seemingly ceaseless travels, have cultivated in her magnificent music, music that oozes sentimentality, soul, and is perhaps the epitome of what it means to feel the blues.

Yola sings of experience similarly to the greatest female voices – Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse – and arguably, at the ripe young age of 36, Yola’s sharing is justified, when you consider her life.

“I think my mum said I was born older – she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re a white kind of baby; born at 26’, and then it’s age catching up with me.

“I think there’s something that’s maybe changed behind my eyes – I might not be as wrinkly as many of my friends, but there’s something behind the eyes that changes. Maybe a little more self-love. Maybe self-love can be explained away as experience.”

The wisdom in Yola’s eyes, the windows to the soul as the saying goes, is transported in a particular way to materialise as music and confidence.

“Part of it is, I get stopped on the street a lot. People saying, ‘Wow, thank you so much.’ I ask them what they’re thanking me for.

“They’re thanking me because I’m a dark-skinned, black woman, not a fair-skinned black woman – I’m on the darker end. I have a tight hair texture, wearing a tight afro or a blown-out hair dried afro. Essentially, I’m just existing as a black woman, and that’s absolute rebellion.

“I’ve decided not to do back-up [singing], but to be the artist. We’re getting artists coming to the foreground now with dark skin, which is amazing, but it’s also still too rare.

“If anyone wants to tell you dark-skinned black women maybe just don’t like music, or aren’t good at music, you go, ‘That doesn’t feel right in the very core of my being’.”

Yola makes a point. The thanks she receives for being in the front isn’t undeserved.

“It takes a long time to get a compliment for being in the front unapologetically.

“I’ve definitely been in the front apologetically, for a long time, but to be in a basic acceptance of yourself and of people, I’m on that road. It’s the thing that gives me the confidence to pursue the music I want to do, and that comes forward in the music.”

Yola will support Brandi Carlile at Hamer Hall on Monday April 6. Tickets via Bluesfest Touring. She also plays Bluesfest from Thursday April 9 – Monday April 13.